Colombo Telegraph

Who Is A Public Intellectual?

By Rohan Samarajiva

Prof. Rohan Samarajiva

Dr Siri Gamage has raised some important questions worthy of broader discussion: . . . especially before Presidential or Parliamentary elections, some university academics affiliated with major political parties appear on stage or in press conferences as ‘intellectuals’. Does the media use this term correctly? Who are the intellectuals? What should be their defining features and role? Has this term been vulgarised in the Sri Lankan context to mislead the voting public? If so, where are the true intellectuals? These are some questions we need to discuss due to the ‘incorrect usage’ of this term in the popular media today.

The above “problem statement” refers only to intellectuals, but the real focus is on “public intellectuals,” the subset of intellectuals who shape public discourse.

University degrees do not intellectuals make. Simply holding an academic appointment in a low-quality university surely does not. Martin Wickramasinghe was Sri Lanka’s greatest writer and a powerful shaper of public discourse through the editorship of leading newspapers and his own writing. He lacked formal academic credentials.

If the university has no role in certifying intellectuals, we cannot then appeal to another credentialing authority. There can be only one test of a public intellectual: recognition in the eyes of the public.

One does not have to agree with the views of a person to recognize her or him as a public intellectual. Here is what I wrote about the person I consider to be the most effective public intellectual of our time, Victor Ivan: He, more than anyone else, is responsible for shaping the contemporary discourse of Constitutional reform. . . . I do not fully agree with his diagnosis. My conclusion is that an executive presidency, subject to the right kinds of checks and balances, including an independent judiciary and an empowered legislature and provinces, is the optimal solution for a country at our stage of development and with our multi-ethnic character. I disagree with Ivan’s analysis, but as one who seeks to shape public policy through ideas, I cannot but admire his achievement.

My use of two newspaper editors as exemplars underlines the importance of media. One cannot become a public intellectual without reaching the public.

In Martin Wickramasinghe’s time, this meant that one had to write; and some editor/gatekeeper had to decide that what one wrote was worthy of publication. For the past few decades, it meant that one had to be given time before TV cameras, though newspapers did not become completely irrelevant, as proved by Victor Ivan. But the role of gatekeepers continued to be important. Wickramasinghe and Ivan were gatekeepers themselves, so one could argue that they had an advantage, at least in building their “brands.”

Has this changed with new media? China, where the gatekeeping is very strict in the government and party dominated media, public intellectuals such as Han Han have emerged based solely on blogs and social media. There are some signs of such public intellectuals emerging in present-day Sri Lanka as well. Ajith Parakum Jayasinghe comes to mind. Dr Nalin de Silva made his name through main stream media (MSM) but one may argue that he maintains it through social media.

So the weakness of my argument about public intellectuals being decided on by the public lies in the role played by gatekeepers. Are they neutral and disinterested, allowing the “true” intellectuals to communicate to the public and thereby have a chance of becoming public intellectuals? Or do the gatekeepers distort the process, privileging some (unworthy) voices and suppressing (worthy) others? Even if we discount bad motives, do they possess the knowledge and the judgment to recognize worthy voices? Are social media a viable alternative to MSM yet? Will they ever be?

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